The chief engineer
Mariella Vogler’s professional roots – she has been with Opel for 29 years – lie in quality. She has worked intensively on “hard quality”, but also on “soft quality”, i.e. the question of what makes a car desirable across all sensory boundaries. The mechanical engineer was previously responsible for the development of the Ampera, the Zafira B and the Cascada.
Ms Vogler, the sixth generation of the compact class bestseller has been completely redeveloped. How do you start such a process? With a blank sheet of paper, empty, full of possibilities?
Mariella Vogler: The development process began in a meeting room at the Design Centre. Back then, in spring 2018, I saw 3D animations and sketches of the Astra design there for the first time. All I did was listen. The designers are our creative minds, our artists in the company. They speak a different language than we engineers do. They work through feeling – and I wanted to understand their emotional world. It is the essential step in the initial phase. I have to understand this emotional world in order to translate it into engineering language. This, in turn, creates the car that is supposed to trigger the feelings in the customer that the designers worked with. This translation work is the most important skill that a chief engineer and their team must master.s.
What emotional world did you take away from the meeting?
The new Astra should be desirable – ‚Bold and Pure‘. That coincided with the brief I had received a few weeks earlier from the company’s top management: ‚Create an Astra with character‘. The concept of the new era already came up there. I had already been responsible for the development of other models, for example the Opel Cascada. But I have never had such a clear starting position and I knew immediately: we can really create something very special. And not just because the Astra will be available as a plug-in hybrid and purely battery-electric model for the first time. The goal was a car that triggers satisfaction in the customer across all sensory boundaries.
This kind of vehicle development process is long and complex. What is the basic prerequisite for achieving the set goal?
It’s the team that works on it. If I want to create a car whose character traits are strength and clarity, then every single team member must embody this attitude. So I chose colleagues for the core team who embody exactly that: a clear attitude and strength in the form of courage. Courage to create something new, but also to endure headwinds. Because one thing was clear to me: what the designers with Mark Adams at the helm had presented to me was a diamond! And it was not to be destroyed by compromises. It was to be realised exactly as it was.
It is remarkable that half of the 25-member core team for the Astra is made up of women. Was that intentional?
No, not really. It was a result of the requirements profile. Whether technology, development, purchasing, production, timing, quality or costs – there is ‚best talent on the job‘ in every position. It was also important to me to put together a team that is characterised by team spirit and integrity. Only when everyone works together in a spirit of trust, with great openness and mutual appreciation, can great things be achieved. You don’t create a car that can spark positive feelings with an atmosphere of rivalry.
August 2021: Mariella Vogler invited us to the Opel Tower. Germany’s first assembly line car, the Laubfrosch, was built in the 16-storey building on the Rüsselsheim plant premises in 1924. Today, the brick tower houses the pilot line for prototypes. Other members of the core team have arrived, and a new Astra is also ready and waiting. It is one of the handcrafted one-offs that will be on stage at the world premiere two weeks later.
Ms Vogler, thank you very much for the invitation. In the video call a few weeks ago, we came to the conclusion that the attributes “bold” and “pure” – the basis for the new Astra – are best explored on site. At first glance, the clarity of the front with the new Opel Vizor catches the eye.
Mariella Vogler: Definitely, the attribute ‘pure’ as one of the two leitmotifs is based on the Opel compass, two axes that intersect with the Opel Blitz in the middle. At the front, the vertical axis is defined by the even sharper crease in the bonnet, which continues below the Blitz. The wing-shaped graphic of the daytime running lights marks the horizontal axis. We have implemented this Opel compass with full consistency – right down to the last detail. For example, in the rear, the horizontal brake taillight would have interrupted the vertical lines. So we designed – for the first time ever on this spot – a vertical light element.
And how does the new Astra arouse the emotions of its occupants?
What makes the Astra so desirable is the sum of strong emotions that can be found in all the individual facets of the car. Take the side view, for example, which is characterised by clear yet strong lines. As a father or mother, when you put your child in the back seat and close the door, you have to feel a sense of trust. You have to know that you and your family are protected. Or this small detail on the C-pillar: the gill design is reminiscent of the Opel Kadett. In this way, the Astra pays tribute to its long history.
Is there a facet that made it particularly difficult for you to evoke a positive feeling?
The opening mechanism of the boot lid is a good example. Our goal was to avoid an unpleasant feeling that everyone knows: the one when you have to reach into a dark – perhaps dirty – hollow on the tailgate to unlock it. We have integrated the mechanism into the Blitz logo. It can be operated with one hand, the fingertips reach into an ergonomically shaped recess. A Blitz to touch, a mechanism that triggers connection. Much in our 9-column decision matrix spoke against it. But we did it anyway. Precisely because we wanted to combine the action of opening the tailgate with a good feeling
“Much spoke against it. But we did it anyway – for the good feeling.”
When asked what kind of feelings await you inside the Astra, Mariella Vogler asks a colleague from Internal Communications, who is seeing the Astra for the first time today, to get in. So she opens the door and gets into the driver’s seat – a deep sigh can be heard. The chief engineer laughs, the core team members nod knowingly.
Mariella Vogler: That happens a lot. People get behind the wheel, look around – and breathe a sigh of relief. Quite unconsciously. It’s a feeling of arriving, you feel comfortable. We have also created this through clarity. By reducing it to the essentials. We talk about ‚visual detox‘. I would go so far as to say that every customer who gets into the Astra experiences this pleasant feeling of arriving. They want to own and drive this Astra.
The leap in time you have proclaimed for the interior is primarily linked to the Opel Pure Panel. What makes the new cockpit so special?
It is the soul of the Astra. We didn’t want to just put a screen in the cockpit that looks like a TV has been built into the car. We wanted to create something new, a unique selling point. A component that is fully integrated into the car. I knew we had achieved integration when suddenly several areas, from air conditioning/heating to electronics to hardware, were responsible for the Pure Panel. This may sound unspectacular to outsiders, but the formula ‚one component – one owner‘ is actually set in stone in development work. So it was clear: now the fully digital man-machine interface is inseparably linked to the car.
„The Pure Panel is fully integrated into the car. It’s its soul.“
You have also given the Opel Pure Panel switches with functions that can be selected directly – why?
We made a conscious decision to do that. Here, too, feelings were the starting point. For example, you’ve been on the road for a long time, the traffic is slow, it’s hot and then the moment comes when you think: I need fresh air, now! The ‚Max AC‘ switch is positioned in the centre for maximum power from the air conditioning. One press of a button and the Astra immediately obliges.
There is still so much more to discover. Because, of course, the Astra once again brings innovations to the compact class that until now have only been found in expensive vehicles. These include the latest version of the adaptive Intelli-Lux LED® Pixel Light or the AGR-certified front seats developed in-house, including a seat fabric “you’d love to have a coat made out of”, says Mariella Vogler. But the team has to go to the final assembly line for the next appointment. This is where the Astra series production will begin this autumn. Of course, it is a matter for the boss to supervise the preparations for this: “We can only get people to covet this car if the quality is excellent,” Mariella Vogler emphasises. Time for one last question.
Has the Astra turned into the diamond you hoped for?
Mariella Vogler: Definitely: yes! This is also evident in a feeling that prevails throughout the entire team: it’s pride. Pride in pretty much every single millimetre that we have created. We want a lot of customers to feel the enthusiasm that the designers and the engineers have put into the car. My conviction is: the heart buys a car – long before the mind has found the reasons for it. And there is a lot of heart in this Opel from every single person who was involved in its development. We wanted to make the decision easy for the customer.
Video: Chief engineer Mariella Vogler talks about what makes the new Astra so special.